The indigenous origin of the names of Brazilian cities

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Brazil

Publishing organisation: Nexo Jornal

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-01-14

Language: Portuguese

Authors: Main authors:
Gabriela Salles, infographics intern
Nicholas Pretto, data science intern
Gabriel Zanlorenssi


Gabriela Salles is a data journalist and Journalism student at University of São Paulo. She worked as an intern in Nexo Jornal from 2020 to 2022.

Nicholas Pretto is a data journalist and data science assistant with a bachelor degree in Architecture and Urbanism, at University of São Paulo. He is part of the Nexo Jornal Graphics team since 2021.

Gabriel Zanlorenssi is Data Editor at Nexo Jornal and part of Graphics team since 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science at University of São Paulo and part of ‘INMA 30 Under 30’ list in 2022.

Project description:

This is an exploration of a database by researcher Rafael Pereira (Institute of Applied Economic Research of Brazil) on the etymology of the names of 5.570 Brazilian municipalities.

Much like other countries in the Americas, many indigenous people were wiped out during the colonization and afterwards. In spite of that, their languages had huge impact on Brazilian Portuguese, mainly on place names. 37,4% of the Brazilian cities have, full or partially, indigenous names.

Impact reached:

The publication of an unprecedented survey made by Pereira and shared with priority with Nexo’s team.

The content was our 15th most read Graphics story 2022, even though it was subscriber-only. We adapted the content for our Instagram, where it received around 9.600 likes.

Techniques/technologies used:

R and the tidyverse package were used for data analysis and initial charts. Although the researcher had previously tidied the data, it was necessary for the Nexo team to double check, on a case-by-case basis, the more than 5.000 Brazilian municipalities in search of exceptions or inconsistencies. Adobe Illustrator was used for overall design and layout.

Context about the project:

Before the European colonization, the land that is Brazil today had around 3,5 million indigenous inhabitants. They spoke hundreds of languages, that came mostly from four different language families: Tupi, the most numerous by 1500s, Je, Arawak and Carib.

The original population of Brazil was victim of diseases, slavery and deliberate genocide and conquest, but manage to resist up to this day. In 20210, 274 surviving languages were spoken and indigenous peoples numbered around 900,000. In recent years, they faced increasing harassment and violence perpetrated by farmers that want to invade their land and watched a dismantlement of protective institutions.

The data we received from the researcher, had the etymology of all names of Brazilian municipalities, and there was an effort by Nexo team to filter which information was suitable for publication.

We thought that a publication regarding the indigenous etymology of municipalities would be a good way to remember the immense impact the indigenous people had on Brazilian society and Brazilian Portuguese. The most impressive influence of indigenous people were on place names (e.g., the capital cities of Curitiba – ‘a lof pines’ – and Manaus – ‘the mother of gods’).

It took a week-long work to look at each name to check if they were actually of indigenous origin.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

This project is a good example of cooperation between researchers and data journalists to produce great stories.

Project links: